Saturday, 18 July 2009

From Bristol to Bath and back again


Bristol City Council is consulting on plans for the Greater Bristol Bus Network along the A4 Bath Road. Let's hope they do a better job than last time, when they consulted on the A420 Showcase Bus Route. The consultation took place over a relatively short period in the summer, when many people were away. The drop-in shop in Church Road where local residents could supposedly go to learn more about the plans was staffed by people who knew nothing about the proposals, couldn't answer any questions and did little other than hand out maps of the proposed route. After meeting with local residents and local shopkeepers I lobbied the Council to get the consultation period extended, and for an actual dialogue with those who had concerns, e.g. council officials actually getting out and talking to the shopkeepers about the impact the bus lane and new parking restrictions would have on passing trade.

So has anything been learnt from the experience last time? The signs aren't good. What's billed as an 'informal consultation' is already running, from 4 July to 14th August, a period when many people are away. There's a drop-in shop, which is open three days a week over a short period. I hope we aren't in one of those scenarios when very few people know about the consultation, the plans are published, no-one likes them - and the council responds by saying 'well you were consulted'. It's only a genuine consultation if (a) everyone knows it's taking place, (b) there's a two-way dialogue, with as much information as possible being given to those who are interested in the consultation and someone who can answer their questions as and when they arise, and (c) people are given sufficient time to check out the plans and to respond, including organising their own informal consultations within their community. In the latter case I'm thinking of local residents' groups, neighbourhood partnerships, shopkeepers, businesses on the industrial parks, schools (not just the school run, but there's quite an issue in transporting pupils from schools to other premises to use facilities there, and the time it takes). I simply don't think this can be done in the time available, but I think it's essential that such groups pool information with each other and hammer out their collective response. It will give their submissions much more clout.

So I have some questions for the Council: Who decided that this was a suitable time to have the consultation, and why? What efforts have been made to let local residents and road users know about the consultation? A leaflet drop to local residents would not suffice; it's a major road from Bristol to Bath, many of the road users aren't local. Has, for example, information been distributed to motorists using the A4 Park and Ride? What happens after the informal consultation closes? Will the submissions be made public, at least in summary form? What feedback will those making submissions get, and will the Council facilitate opportunities for the concerns and objections to be discussed, for example in public meetings?

Apart from the fact that it's my job to ask such questions, as the A4 runs through my constituency, I'm also asking these questions now because I think it's absolutely crucial we get this right. The A4 is a dreadful transport corridor at the moment. The traffic is always heavy, and often unpredictable; what should be a ten minute journey can sometimes take three-quarters of an hour, not just at peak times but at random points throughout the day. It affects shops, businesses, people's jobs and lives. The GBBN is being supported by a considerable amount of Government money - £43 million or so across the city - which we've lobbied hard for over the year. It's too good an opportunity to squander.

21 comments:

thebristolblogger said...

The A4 runs past my house and I actually use the buses. I got a letter from Jolly Jon Rogers about the GBBBN, which supplied an email address.

So I emailed them with a question (admittedly a potentially quite tricky one) 2 weeks ago and I'm yet to even get an acknowledgment.

Funny kind of consultation.

Surely regardless of the question they should acknowledge a communication within 2 weeks?

What's the point of publishing an email address if they're going to ignore any communication through it?

Surely they're resourced to respond to email enquiries if they published the address? Or did they just think it would look good on the glossy leaflet?

Pathetic. It's another con. First Bus have told the council what to do already.

Jon Rogers said...

Thanks Kerry

All good questions. All ward councillors were consulted before the consultation was formalised and made public.

There is a lot of interest in the A4 Bath Road GBBN proposals, as there was with the A420 GBBN proposals. I have already seen feedback from councillors, residents and businesses.

Officers have been learning from previous feedback and consultation processes, and obviously it is in everyone's interest that the quality of consultation and feedback is high.

The provision of a shop premises to support the consultation was first introduced in the A420 consultation and was well received, hence the decision to repeat that in the A4 consultation.

A request has been made by Chris Hutt for internet publication of more detailed plans and I fully support that and have asked officers to investigate.

As always, I am open to all suggestions and ideas.

Jon
Jon Rogers, Exec Member Transport and Sustainability

Kerry said...

Would have been nice if the MP had been copied in too, especially given the Government funding. I have to say, I had nothing but complaints about the shop in the Church Road consultation - it was little more than a place to pick up a leaflet/ map. Shopkeepers complained that they'd asked fairly simply questions about repositioning of bus stops and parking bays, and all the staff could do was to point to the map, which the shopkeepers had already seen. For it to be a proper consultation we need community meetings, where transport officers can be quizzed, and we need the shop to be staffed by senior traffic engineers. I hope that's in the pipeline.

Jon Rogers said...

Thanks Kerry

Apologies, I don't know why MPs aren't copied in on request for consultations that affect their residents. It does seem obvious.

I will enquire.

Of course, you will be aware that there may be "one or two" council officers who have some rather entrenched and old fashioned views on consultation and public involvement and engagement!

Guess those views have been built up over last 30 years. Together we can change them.

Jon

Kerry said...

In my experience consultation is too often a box-ticking exercise, or used as a means of deferring a decision that they don't really want to make - 'we have to go out to consultation' ad infinito.

thebristolblogger said...

"Of course, you will be aware that there may be "one or two" council officers who have some rather entrenched and old fashioned views on consultation and public involvement and engagement!"

Why do their views matter? And why should they affect us?

They're not paid to have views. They're paid to implement politicians views.

If they want to have views they should go and get elected.

The kind of people you describe are a menace. They are completely unaccountable. They should be fired.

Jon Rogers said...

Dear Kerry

Please can I pass on the answers to your questions?

As I said above, they are all good questions, and I hope you agree that these are useful answers.

Best wishes

Jon

Jon Rogers said...

You asked, "So I have some questions for the Council: Who decided that this was a suitable time to have the consultation, and why?"

We have received a good deal of pressure from the DfT to accelerate schemes within GBBN, so we wanted to carry out our consultation before the summer holidays as we would have a 6 week gap forced upon us if we did not.

There were a number of issues with the shop lease that meant we were pushed from June into July, which is unfortunate. However, we have still got a Council-recommended 6-week consultation period in operation, the first three weeks of which (when most responses are expected) are firmly in term-time.

The consultation centre is not staffed for this whole period as the final two weeks do slip into holidays and it was expected to be a waste of staff resources to spend time out there if the number of prospective visitors would be low.

Jon Rogers said...

You asked, "What efforts have been made to let local residents and road users know about the consultation? A leaflet drop to local residents would not suffice; it's a major road from Bristol to Bath, many of the road users aren't local. Has, for example, information been distributed to motorists using the A4 Park and Ride?

We delivered a leaflet drop of around 6,000 leaflets to local residents and businesses. This should be an effective way of reaching local residents, and this has been confirmed by the responses and shop visits.

In early May, an officer attended the Brislington Community Partnership to present our ideas, and he has since been invited back to a smaller focus group session to talk through some elements in more detail; this is currently being arranged.

To reach more distant users of the road (who will feel as many benefits while being subject to less disruption than local people), there is an exhibition at the Park and Ride site, along with a pile of leaflets; advertisements have been placed in the Observer free newspaper and the Bath Chronicle to promote the consultation centre to a wider audience.

When the consultation period began, a press release was issued to all media - but only Radio Bristol used it. This is beyond our control, although I believe the Press Office are to contact the Evening Post this week to try to get a story produced to help us.

Jon

Jon Rogers said...

You asked, "What happens after the informal consultation closes? Will the submissions be made public, at least in summary form? What feedback will those making submissions get, and will the Council facilitate opportunities for the concerns and objections to be discussed, for example in public meetings?"

In answers to letters and e-mails, I have promised all respondents a note detailing and explaining any elements changed following the informal consultation, which will be sent out in late August / early September (well before any formal TRO consultation) - all feedback will be used to inform our updating of the scheme design from what has been consulted on now to what we progress as our final design.

As this is not formal TRO consultation, we cannot make submissions public as we have not highlighted to people that this may happen (as the formal process does).

For the same reason, public meetings are not considered appropriate at this stage, but they may well be promoted before / during TRO consultation at the turn of the year.

Jon Rogers said...

I also checked on thebristolblogger complaint above on Saturday.

The officer response yesterday was that, "We are aware of Mr [ ]'s question, which has been allocated to a team member for a response.

"To the best of my knowledge, we have 15 days in which to respond to a member of the public, and we look certain to beat this target; the e-mail will be 2 weeks old on Tuesday (tomorrow).

"I believe, although I could be corrected, that most members of the public would rather wait a couple of weeks to receive an answer to their question than to receive an immediate non-personal acknowledgement then wait three weeks for any further information; I'm also not sure it would be the best use of staff resources."


If, when the response does wing it's way to Blogger Mansions, there remain unanswered questions, please let me know.

Jon

Kerry said...

You could have answered them all in one post! Could you confirm whether you've followed Cabinet Office guidelines on public consultations?

Jon Rogers said...

Morning Kerry

We follow Bristol City Council guidelines on consultation rather than "Cabinet Office guidelines". They may overlap.

Bristol City Council and West of England Partnership do not have a happy reputation on consultation and I have been in discussions on how to improve.

I am particularly keen on initial involvement followed by formal or informal consultation, depending on topic. There is support for these changes across all 4 Unitary Authorities.

As with all these things, they are not my ideas; I readily acknowledge the ideas, work and inspiration of others.

The Bristol Blogger said...

Jon,

the central contention "we have 15 days in which to respond to a member of the public" might be reasonable if this is communicated to the public. It isn't.

And they might well "look certain to beat this target" but what use is there in beating a target whose existence I am completely unaware of and which is totally lame anyway? From a customer perspective (which is what I am aren't I?) they don't look to have beaten anything. They just appear rude and slow.

For an organisation that claims to marketing-led some of this response is astounding.

"I believe, although I could be corrected, that most members of the public would rather wait a couple of weeks to receive an answer to their question than to receive an immediate non-personal acknowledgement."

Well I believe - and I'm the customer and the one who counts in a marketing-led business - that my communication should be acknowledged by 3 - 5 days. I wonder has this officer consulted any market research evidence - as a marketing-led organisation would - to back up his view because it's entirely at odds with most marketing and business practice I've ever heard.

Alternatively has he ever tried contacting some organisations renowned for the quality of their marketing and customer care like Tesco or M&S to see how they do it? Do they keep people waiting 15 (working?) days?

"I'm also not sure it would be the best use of staff resources"

Oh dear. Communicating quickly and politely with your customers is not the best use of your resources? Nonsense. Any marketer would tell you that this kind of direct communication from a customer is marketing gold. (In fact really top businesses will even encourage complaints as a way to get high quality customer contact)

It's an opportunity to build a direct and personal relationship with your customers. And it's cheap! You can spend tens, hundreds or millions even, on advertising, direct marketing, PR etc trying to reach people ineffectively but when people come direct to you, supply a name and contact details and invite contact, you claim you haven't got the resources to deal with it. This is business suicide.

Contrary to what we're led to believe, marketing isn't about paying people 6-figure salaries to hang out in "the breakout space" devising mad schemes, it's actually about looking after your customers in really basic, simple ways. I'm surprised people who run CONsulations at BCC don't know this, after all isn't it their job?

Out of interest Kerry, how quickly do you aim to acknowledge email correspondence?

Finally on the matter of the press. Considering the poor response from the dead tree dinosaurs, why don't they send releases to bloggers? Both Chris Hutt and Stockwood Pete have done stuff on this. Your press office might have to bite the bullet and accept the principle of "all publicity is good publicity" but it's a means of getting information out there to the public isn't it?

And it's building those relationships again isn't it?

Kerry said...

Jon says: The officer response yesterday was that, "We are aware of Mr [ ]'s question, which has been allocated to a team member for a response. To the best of my knowledge, we have 15 days in which to respond to a member of the public, and we look certain to beat this target; the e-mail will be 2 weeks old on Tuesday (tomorrow)."

So on day 13 the officer confirmed that it had been passed to someone for a response... that doesn't mean that he will get a response by day 15, does it? Or are people 'working to target'?

One of my concerns about such targets is that they can sometimes create a culture of 'oh, we have 15 days to respond to that, no need to worry about it now' rather than a culture of responding as soon as practicable.

thebristolblogger said...

There's some confusion on what this 15 day target means isn't there?

Do they mean 15 working days? Because 15 days was up on Tuesday, which means they were over their absurdly unambitious target when they responded to Jon.

It's also odd how despite this resource drought they can respond to Jon in detail in 24 hours flat.

That suggests they have resources but they're being used to placate management and politicians rather than aimed, where they should be, at us.

This episode demonstrates that this consultation process is so dysfunctional and lacking in anything resembling good practice that Jon should cancel it immediately and get it done properly at a later date.

Jesus, it's not even hard to do is it?

Jon Rogers said...

It is 15 working days, so if you haven't had a reply by this coming Tuesday let me know.

I personally try and reply ASAP. I try and let people know that I am getting further information and generally a likely timescale.

I also frequently say things like, "if you haven't heard back from me in 2 weeks, then please chase me".

I sometimes overlook emails. Officers also can do the same (and I expect MPs as well). I usually get about 90 emails a day, and most of them need reading and many of them require replies.

A quick check today - I have so far had 102 emails, I have read them all and I have replied to 26 of them.

My colleagues and I are trying to improve the openness and responsiveness of the council. This is going to take time.

Jon

Kerry said...

Do you agree with me that many council officials are unduly defensive and see their role as protecting their own backs rather than engaging with the public? I've had some who have reacted with something verging on hostility when asked the simplest questions.

Jon Rogers said...

Not sure about "many", but I have come across a few. Most seem caring, helpful and conscientious.

thebristolblogger said...

My experience is that there's a clear demarcation between frontline staff and management at the council.

I've lost count of the times I've dealt with reasonable and helpful staff at first contact with the council and then become involved in some absurd time-consuming Kakfaesque shadowplay with their managers.

Let's face it, management is in the high paranoid style there.

Anyway here's the questions and answers:


- the cost of a single and return ticket from the Three Lamps Junction - Centre


The cost of a bus ticket from Three Lamps Junction to the Centre is as
follows:

(Presently offered by First)

Single £1.80
Peak return £3.40
Off Peak return £2.70

- the projected cost of a single and return ticket from the Three
Lamps Junction - Centre after the improvements.


Bus fares are set by the operator on Commercial Services, in this case
First, and it will be a matter for them to consider once the
improvements have been implemented.

I have passed a copy of your email to First for a response.

You can see the two half weeks' worth of resource heavy labour used up here can't you?

dreamingspire said...

Reading through the comments I was thinking of making a substantive comment outside of the exchange between Kerry and Cllr Rogers, but thebristolblogger has done it all on a project that is literally up his street. I add just a couple of things: (a) some areas of the Council have not improved since Avon County days, and the Executive Members in conjunction with Chief Officers have to ensure that the attitude and performance are right first time, every time, (b) the wesofenglun partnership, after being labelled by Stephen Williams as 'opaque', has done it right by getting the money for numerous transport schemes (I think that I now understand why they have kept themselves to themselves, but just wish it would have been possible for them to engage much more with citizens and businesses).